LETTERS FROM PALESTINE 2
October 15, 2007
(Pictures from around Ramallah, etc.)
I had to look up how to spell "cappuccino" since it's
rendered so many different ways in Arab-land I had
forgotten what the real word actually looks like.
Usually on the menus here, it's some variation on
"kabotsheenou," which is a transliteration into the
Roman alphabet of the transliteration into the Arabic
alphabet of the original word -- like a game of
telephone. For the same reason, a popular brand of
hair gel is called "Shainy" and women get their hair
and make-up done in "Saloons".
And if you think playing Arabic script telephone with
Italian and English words is funny, go to Lebanon and
check out all the French-Arabic-French.
Anyway. The flight to Amman, Jordan, was long but
reasonably pleasant. I met a Palestinian woman from
Nablus in JFK airport and was surprised to find myself
having a reasonably fluent conversation with her in
Arabic. It wasn't fluent, of course. Sometimes she
had to go back and break things down into simpler
pieces of vocabulary until I understood, and sometimes
I wanted to make a joke or a comment that I didn't
have the vocab for. But we got a lot of things across
with fairly minimal problems.
A family member of hers soon arrived who spoke
excellent English, and he talked to the woman in rapid
Arabic for a while and then turned to me and said,
"Wow, she really likes you. But it doesn't take much
to make a Palestinian very happy. Just to feel with
what is happening to-- No, not even to feel with,
just to know what is happening to us. There is so
much ignorance. So, what will you be doing there?"
We chatted 'til the plane arrived, and by the time I
left the airport in Amman, I was invited to the
woman's house in Nablus and to a wedding in Dhahariyya
(a village south of Hebron).
In Amman I stayed at my friend Fayez's temporary
hotel. His old one, the famed Al Sarayya, is being
demolished for an intergalactic bypass road.
(Actually a new north-south Jordan rail line.) And
his new one is still being built and refurbished. But
the temporary place still has the same people, nearly
the same atmosphere, and cool travelers to hang out
with, including a Dutch girl who seemed to have lived
a life parallel to mine in the things we've done in
the Middle East, the drama we've dealt with, and the
same likes and dislikes about Arab culture (and boys).
It was lovely chatting with her in an outdoor cafe
over mint tea, hummous, salad and felafel.
It was also nice to watch everyone else breaking their
Ramadan fast; they sat down at tables up to an hour
ahead of time looking like broken puppets. Then, as
the call to prayer sounded and the food arrived,
people slowly re-animated into chatting, good-natured
human beings again.
I also caught up with my friend Tanya from Stanford,
who's currently studying in England but was home in
Amman for the holidays. It was great to see her
family and their growing number of adopted cats. Plus
they fed me molokhiya and chocolate cake. Mmmmmm.
On my last night in Amman, Fayez invited me to a
lovely iftar (sunset breakfast) with some of his family members, and we
shared delicious fried fish and maqloubeh.
I was a wreck the next day on the way to the border
between Jordan and the West Bank, which is
controlled by Israel. This was the bottleneck
where it could all come crashing down. My fate was
about to be in the hands of people who knew and cared
nothing of my plans or aspirations, only of their own
perceived interests and prejudices, many of which I happen to
disagree with. But they could threaten me and I
couldn't threaten them, so I was at their mercy. As
always, and as they've done so many times to so many
people, they could ruin my day, my month, my year, if
they got it into their heads to choose to do so.
It reminded me of a passage I read recently in The
Unbearable Lightness of Being:
Not until that point did Tomas realize that he was
under interrogation. All at once he saw that his
every word could put someone in danger. Although he
obviously knew the name of the editor in question, he
denied it: "I'm not sure."
Anyone who thinks honesty is always the best policy,
well, here's at least one clear-cut countermanding
case. I hate lying, but it's a skill the Israelis
have pretty much mandated that I learn. Otherwise
their prejudices would be allowed to control my life.
"Now, now," said the man in a voice dripping with
indignation over Tomas's insincerity, "you can't tell
me he didn't introduce himself!"
It is a tragicomic fact that our proper upbringing has
become an ally of the secret police. We do not know
how to lie. The "Tell the truth!" imperative drummed
into us by our mamas and papas functions so
automatically that we feel ashamed of lying even to a
secret policeman during an interrogation. It is
simpler for us to argue with him or insult him (which
makes no sense whatsoever) than to lie to his face
(which is the only thing to do).
It also helped that I had a brand new clean passport
with a smiling picture of me with my hair down
wearing make-up and an Ann Taylor sweater and a
necklace. (I got the necklace in Syria -- I couldn't
resist wearing it for the photo.) In my old passport
photo, I look like a stoned Cherokee in a T-shirt.
Not the type Israel considers desirable.
So there I was, all dressed up like in the photo, with
a bright clean passport, surrounded by bona fide
tourists with a good night's sleep behind me. Let
them do their worst.
"What is the purpose of your visit in Israel?"
"Where you are going in Israel?"
"Jerusalem and Tel Aviv."
"Do you plan to go to the West Bank?"
"Do you know anyone in Israel?"
"No. By the way, would you mind stamping me on a
separate sheet of paper?"
"I'm hoping to meet a friend in Turkey in about a
month, and it might be cheaper to go overland through
"What you will do in Syria?"
"Nothing, just pass through."
Lies, all lies.
"OK. Let me go check and see if this is a problem."
She said it rather ominously and got up and walked out
of her little booth and over to a security door. I
guess this was the part where I was supposed to say,
"No, no, don't talk to anyone else, I swear, I'm just
a tourist! Stamp my passport if you want, I don't
care. In fact, you can have it!" But I just stood
there, looking bored.
She came back in short order, stamped the separate
paper, and advised me to enjoy my stay in Israel.
And on the other side of the booths, they didn't even
rummage through my luggage for two hours or accuse me of being involved
in conspiracies to commit violent or seditious acts.
None of the usual nonsense. I just went through the
turnstile (where I got one last half-hearted
mini-interrogation), grabbed my bags, and hopped on a
sherut to Jerusalem and thence to Ramallah.
Sweet. Easiest border crossing ever. So, no more
mucking about with half-truths for me. Lying -- just
telling them precisely what they want to hear, and in
one-word answers if possible -- is clearly the way to
And now, a few days later, after settling into my new
house (a stone house built on a hillside near the city
center) and catching up with a ton of old friends,
here I am sitting in the best Italian restaurant in
Ramallah -- the one overlooking the Ramallah municipal
park with its fountains and trees and now its Ramadan
Christmas lights -- using its free high-speed wireless
internet, full as an egg on a grilled rosemary-garlic
turkey and cheese sandwich, taking a break from
reading a great book, working on an exciting writing
project of my own choosing, and looking forward to a
party in an hour and a half. And that's just this
moment here -- there have been a lot of them like this
already, and many more to come. I haven't been this
happy in years.
And as I said before, it's not like last time. It's a
new thing. Like Dante, I had to take a walk through
hell -- through the spiritual and intellectual
Guantanamo of the Bush Beltway -- to even appreciate
what the alternative really was.
And Palestine's no paradise, obviously. (And DC's not
exactly hell, either.) People's conceptions of things are very
personal, and they depend on a person's history, on
their goals, on their personality, and most of all, on
what they focus their attention on. And for whatever
vector-summation of reasons, Palestine is a very easy
place for me to be right now. It's allowing me
breathing space I need to be more creative and happy
and useful. This was a Good Decision. I had hoped it
Anyway, here's something that captured my attention a
few minutes ago. It's from a book called Lila by
Robert Persig, the same guy who wrote Zen and the Art
of Motorcycle Maintenance (which has virtually nothing
to do with Zen Buddhism and even less to do with
motorcycle maintenance -- but since what the book was
about WAS what the book was about, I don't know,
probably any title would have been a disaster; it's
that kind of book).
So, on to Lila. Here's an excerpt [Comments in
brackets are mine]:
A. N. Whitehead wrote that "mankind is driven forward
by dim apprehensions of things too obscure for its
So, this was exciting. All the impulses I've been
following since I was a kid, the ones that seemed to
come from nowhere at all, that I always wondered where
they came from -- this description sounded both
compelling and congruent with my experiences. Like
all words, and like all science, it's just a more
accurate and elegant description of something, neither
the thing itself nor an explanation of it. (I.e., you
don't explain gravity by saying it attracts masses to
each other based on an inverse square law. That's
just a description of the effect we observe that it
has in all cases we've studied so far. What is
gravity? Nobody knows. We just know our experience
with a concept to which we've attached that label
after the fact of our experience with it.)
[In this case he was referring to "growth" or
self-actualization. What (eventually) caused humanity
to reject slavery and the Holocaust even though the
majority of us are neither African nor Jewish, and
even though all the laws and most of the churches
permitted these things at the time? What causes a
bright college student to go into human rights law
instead of corporate law, even though corporate law is
perfectly legal and respectable and far more
remunerative, and his respected elders are pushing him
toward it? How do Bush's people know which words
and phrases and ideals to co-opt and bastardize in
order to rally people to their causes? Why do I think
traffic lights and big box stores are destructive and
inelegant, even though they move traffic just fine and
provide me with useful measuring tape and mildly
delicious Grilled Stuft Burritos? All these things
seem related somehow. But how? Who can put it into
One can imagine how an infant in the womb acquires
awareness of simple distinctions such as pressure and
sound, and then at birth acquires more complex ones of
light and warmth and hunger. We know these
distinctions are pressure and sound and light and
warmth and hunger and so on but the baby doesn't. We
could call them stimuli but the baby doesn't identify
them as that. From the baby's point of view,
something, he knows not what, compels attention. This
generalized "something," Whitehead's "dim
apprehension," is Dynamic Quality. [A term that can
best be defined at this point by its context in the
previous sentence.] When he is a few months old the
baby studies his hand or a rattle, not knowing it is a
hand or a rattle, with the same sense of wonder and
mystery and excitement created by the music and heart
attack in the previous examples. [Of someone hearing
a song for the first time that touches him deeply, or
a boring, unhappy man who has a heart attack,
recovers, and rediscovers the precious mystery of
If the baby ignores this force of Dynamic Quality it
can be speculated that he will become mentally
retarded, but if he is normally attentive to Dynamic
Quality he will soon begin to notice differences and
then correlations between the differences and then
repetitive patterns of the correlations. But it is
not until the baby is several months old that he will
begin to really understand enough about that
enormously complex correlation of sensations and
boundaries and desires called an 'object' to be able
to reach for one. This object will not be a primary
experience. It will be a complex pattern of static
values derived from primary experience.
Once the baby has made a complex pattern of values
called an object and found this pattern to work well
he quickly develops a skill and speed at jumping
through the chain of deductions that produced it, as
though it were a single jump. This is similar to the
way one drives a car. The first time there is a very
slow trian-and-error process of seeing what causes
what. But in a very short time it becomes so swift
one doesn't even think about it. The same is true of
objects. One uses these complex patterns the same way
one shifts a car, without thinking about them. Only
when the shift doesn't work or an "object" turns out
to be an illusion is once forced to become aware of
the deductive process. This is why we think of
subjects and objects as primary. We can't remember
that period of our lives when they were anything else.
And of course, the distinction between inspiration and
insanity -- between a favorable mutation and a deadly
cancer -- can be nearly impossible to make until long
after the fact. Who's qualified to make the
distinction when the outcome still isn't clear? Who
am I to follow an outlandish impulse that may threaten
aspects of the system I find myself in, the one that
has allowed me a fairly comfortable existence so far?
And why is Britney Spears's latest
ironic-but-not-in-a-funny-way drivel currently playing
on the otherwise usually excellent RamFM radio
station? Can't the girl just retire quietly with her
millions of dollars and her two healthy kids? What is
it she wants more of, when she seems to have
everything? And can't even ex-pats in Palestine be
reasonable enough to keep out this highly unpleasant
addiction to low-quality triviality as much as
I'm actually worried that once Palestine becomes free,
it will be Starbucksed into oblivion and lose a lot of
what I love about it. Obviously, this is no reason to
oppose its being freed. People should be allowed to
choose what they want, even if they may not know any
better than we do not to line their streets and
airwaves with the spiritual equivalent of carcinogens.
But it's troubling to someone who loves this place
for its unique family-owned businesses and hand-picked
food and generous people with time on their hands.
Because I know the likely alternative. Surely there's
some middle ground.
But anyway. So these "dim apprehensions" that people
feel, that drive us slowly forward, that increasingly
isolate bigots and advance freedom and create
environmental movements -- these things that seem to
transcend our culture and our immediate incentive
structures of reward and punishment, often without any
explanation that's rational within the logical
constructions we find ourselves living in -- these are
like pressure and sound in the womb, dim perceptions
that we can't begin to explain but that, if we pay
attention to and explore them, bring us closer and
closer to our maximum human potential (as we conceive
of it -- which I recognize is a circular statement,
but it seems there's no escaping a lot of these, given
our current limitations -- all our perceptions come
from our own deeply biased brains, after all).
So we're all like babies, groping around in the dark.
And these dim impulses we feel -- where do they come
from? From evolution? From the mandations of
subatomic interactions? From God? (And God, by the
way, is usually defined, also rather circularly, as
the very thing that gives us these impulses, even
though we have no idea of God's nature, only of our
gratitude for our ability to have transcendent
experiences, and of a handful of books that were
written at least in part based on these impulses.)
But can we really trust them, when we have no idea
where they come from? It seems like when we do trust
them, we get good results. (Even though some of us
get burned at the stake if our peers aren't ready for
us yet.) Just like babies get good results if they
learn to cry when they're hungry, even though they
have no idea why -- they don't even have a concept
But we have such a dim perception of what a "good
result" is, too. What do we mean by "good results"?
More happiness? More beauty? More elegance? And if
so, do we have good definitions for these concepts?
Aren't they subjective? And Science tells us that
things that are subjective are useless and/or
meaningless precisely because they can't be pinned
down as objects and incorporated into Science.
But isn't that kind of circular, too?
So yeah. Babies in the dark. It's an exciting
conception of where we're at -- of how much we still
have to learn and grow. And maybe some day our
species will be able to reach for moral decisions with
the same ease with which we're currently able to reach
for a glass of juice.
Mmmmm, somebody just bought me a Taybeh -- Palestine's
delicious golden beer. I can definitely say that that
was a good result of me doing work in a cafe and being
friendly. So we've got that sorted out. Just a few
billion more galaxies to go.
All right, so we've covered cappuccino, on to Ramadan.
How I loathe Ramadan! Sorry to all my Muslim
friends, but I'm not Muslim, and I really like tea in
the morning and lunch around noon. Of course I can
eat and drink whatever and whenever I want (even in
public if I really want to, though it wouldn't be very
polite), but... I'm lazy, and sociable. I like to
grab a cheap, fresh felafel for lunch (instead of the
equally cheap but infinitely worse Ramen noodles and
tuna) and be able to eat with whomever I choose at any
This is my fourth Ramadan in Palestine. During my
first, I was in the village of Jayyous, and I fasted
with everyone else and ate delicious home-cooked
iftars every single night. I couldn't even handle all
the invitations to iftars. I think I actually gained
weight. It was nice. I enjoyed the spirit and the
practice of it.
But my next three Ramadans were in Ramallah, where I
hung out with ex-pats and Palestinians from all over
the place, most of whom didn't have family in
Ramallah. So the iftars were fewer and farther
between, and often in restaurants, where it's kinda
the same meal every time, not half as good as
home-cooked, and not free. Plus no one in my office
was fasting, so I felt like an idiot fasting and doing
the whole thing properly -- who was I to fast when my
secular Palestinian colleagues were over it? I ended
up doing it kind of half-assed, which was no fun at
By my third and fourth Ramadans, I was over it
completely. Now it's just annoying. More and more
folks in Ramallah tend to agree.
While everyone else eats their iftars at 5:30,
if I don't happen to be invited to one, I (and
many of my Palestinian friends who are either
Christian, secular, or far from their home towns
elsewhere in Palestine) feel like how a
Jewish person must feel at Christmas. And even if I'm
invited to one, and I didn't fast, the experience is
completely different for me than it is for everyone
else. Everyone else is breaking a fast while I'm just eating a
normal meal. And when I do fast for just one or two
days at a time, my body has no time to get used to it
and I just feel dehydrated and icky and slow.
Plus the schedule of everything gets screwed up,
including buses to Jerusalem, and you can't just go
grab an Italian chicken sub at Osama's Pizza for lunch
if you want to. A day or three days or a week of this
kind of holiday would be one thing. But a month!
Luckily the feast started this weekend, so things will
be back to normal next week. Hallelujah.
Meanwhile, even with the jet lag and the Ramadan,
things have been good. Catching up
so many great people, and I've been meeting lots of
great new people, too.
A Palestinian friend asked me a strange question,
though. He asked me if it hurt my feelings when
people judged me harshly just based on the fact that I
was an American. The answer that came to mind
immediately was, "No," but I wasn't sure why. Then I
realized it was simply because no one had ever done
that to me before. People have asked me if I
supported Bush, but no one has ever assumed it and
judged me pre-emptively. Certainly no Palestinians
that I know of. Because they (a) know the difference
between people and their governments (particularly
when those governments are unelected -- Arabs know a
thing or two about unelected governments) and (b)
figure that if I'm walking around Ramallah without an
armored convoy around me, I'm probably neither
ignorant nor a hater.
He said, "Because it hurt my feelings a lot when
people did that to me in America." He studied at
university in the American South. "People would
assume so many things about me."
You can imagine the things Southerners assumed about a
Palestinian -- and since this particular Palestinian
is a vegetarian atheist, you can imagine his confusion
when they did. He never watched enough CNN or Fox
News to understand what a fundamentally violent,
unreasonable, backwards, hate-filled person he is,
And sadly, many Americans (a) can't figure out the
difference between Arab governments/extremists and
ordinary people, and also (b) lack the deductive
skills to grasp that if an Arab is sitting in front of
them drinking a beer and being friendly with the
Americans around him, he probably is neither ignorant
nor a hater. In fact, it takes an ignorant hater to
assume such a thing.
So all these assumptions about him came as an enormous
Anyway, in addition to the writing and the olive
harvesting and the wedding and the parties, I've been
presented with several job and volunteering
opportunities. So, lots to look forward to.
As always, you're all welcome to visit me here any
time if you can. Hope you're all well, and Kul 3aam
wa intum bikhair! (May every year bring you
"It is difficult to imagine how dull the world
would be if our ancestors had used free time simply
for passive entertainment, instead of finding in it an
opportunity to explore beauty and knowledge."
~ Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow
Next: Olives and Movie Stars